Friday, October 18, 2013

A critique of The Hindu's Readers' Editor

The following article was written for Niti Central. Reproducing it here for reference.
Recently, my Twitter timeline was abuzz with an ombudsman for NDTV. Former Attorney General, Soli Sorabjee was appointed as the ombudsman of NDTV and one conversation he had with a viewer on the Radia tapes set the timelines on fire. In this context, I want to bring forth some views on the ombudsman office of The Hindu. Established back in 2006, this office is called the office of the Readers’ Editor.
Recently, when questioned on the newspaper’s blatant slant against Narendra Modi, the current RE had this to say: “In its opinion pages, the newspaper helps to contextualise and provide a variety of opinions, and some of them are critical of Modi. Some of them? Really? Does he take the reader to be so naive as to believe that some of the articles in opinion pages of The Hindu are critical of Modi? Where do we begin to counter this point?
The RE also has this to say: “These are not just opinions but are backed by facts and figures. So far, nobody has been able to find factual mistakes in what was carried.”
I found a factual mistake in this article by Justice Katju. Justice Katju repeated the lie that 2000 Muslims were killed in 2002 post-Godhra riots. The Hindu carries it without any problem. I sent more than 10 emails to this RE. I sent mails till April 29, a full two-and-a-half months after the article was published. He did not respond. Nor did he print any clarification regarding the query I had.
I asked him to clarify in this news report as to where and when Modi claimed he rescued 15,000 people. No response. No clarification. I found another factual mistake in this article by Shanti Bhushan. No response. No clarification.
Or take the latest rant by Harish Khare - “…He (Modi) has already scared sober and sensible middle-class Indians.” I wonder what the RE feels about this blatant passing off of an opinion as an irrefutable fact?

Addendum: The RE responded to my query on Harish Khare. And not the others. 
Not just the opinion page articles, even the news reports are heavily editorialised when it comes to the BJP or Sangh Parivar. In another one of his recent columns, the RE told readers about this code. “The editorial code of this paper says that “The Hindu shall, as a rule, maintain a clear distinction between news, critical analysis, and opinion in its editorial content and shall not editorialise or opinionate in news reports.”
The context was an opinionated front page article on Rahul Gandhi’s recent incoherent outburst. The RE has indirectly declared that the article was indeed editorialising a news report and therefore, is a wrong thing to happen. The RE goes on to explain that it is difficult not to editorialise but one should be careful before editorialising! One lost track of whether the RE was supporting or opposing the idea!
 Before you suggest that the “editorial code” need not be taken seriously, I strongly urge you to read the responses of the then Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, N Ram, to a variety of queries that the then RE forwarded it to him. Prominent amongst them is this reply to a query by Gopi Maliwal: It is true that Neena Vyas and some others used to do it (editorialising). I am opposed to editorialising in the guise of news — in all daily newspapers and on television as well. We have done our best to eliminate editorialising in the garb of news.
This response was in 2006 (barely two weeks after the first RE took office). So for quite some time now, various reports in The Hindu have been editorialised in nature – more so if the report had anything to do with the BJP or Sangh Parivar. The editor himself has agreed to it, and yet the practice continues. We are reminded that the paper has an editorial code NOT to do it. Yet, they are forced to do it. Why bother advertising this code if it is anyway being broken on a regular basis? However, the articles of the RE were not always so bland.
The concept of an ombudsman was welcomed by one and all when it was introduced in 2006. The office of the RE was set up by The Hindu, and some of the key terms of reference were:
1. “To write a regular column addressing one or several aspects of readers’ concerns, suggestions, and complaints,”
2. “To use this column as a platform and forum for readers’ views.”
3. To publish clarifications as deemed necessary (am paraphrasing this, because a ‘clarifications’ column appears four days a week in the paper. Many a time, factual errors are corrected in this column. Even grammatical errors are corrected some times).
The first RE of the newspaper used to follow these guidelines on quite a regular basis. His weekly (and later bi-weekly) articles had many queries and comments by the readers. One of they key examples is the discussion quoted earlier. Another link here, where the RE tries to answer questions posed by churumuri. The key point to note is that the first RE did make attempts to address concerns raised. I have sent him nearly 40 emails on various issues, and most of them were addressed promptly (including some doubts on grammar, context, and definitions).
At times, he agreed with the readers and at times he agreed with the editor. In fact, I even remember reading that N Ram once was not happy with the RE giving too much importance to ‘counter’ views of the readers – but couldn’t do much except to tell the RE – It’s your column! (I am not able to retrieve the article in which the RE said this.).
The downfall of this office started during the term of the second RE. He turned out to be exact opposite of the first one. His columns were laced with how the media in general covered a particular event.
I had sent nearly 12 mails to the RE over a period of 12 weeks asking why he doesn’t discuss readers’ concerns (as envisaged in the terms of reference). Most of his articles ended with complimenting The Hindu on their fine coverage. I asked N Ram on twitter, on this sea change in the approach. He had this to say:
1. The Readers’ Editor is an independent, critical, reflective voice. The remit is not to parrot or ‘reflect’ other voices!
2. If an RE confines his or her role to providing excerpts from readers’ mail or currying favour with them, I won’t applaud.
3. The RE’s role under the terms is decidedly not to serve as a lightning rod for ideological homilies, slant or flak!
I’d urge you to take a look at the entire conversation to get a full context of the conversation. Regular followers and serious observers of the RE since its inception might have easily noticed the sea change in the approach of the first and second RE.
The reader knew his concerns regarding slant of the paper were also being addressed by the first RE. With the second RE, all we got was factual clarifications. And N Ram provided enough material for us to arrive at the conclusion as to why the change in approach has taken place! The RE should also follow the newspapers slant, and yet be independent!
The third (and current) RE’s approach is not very different to the second RE. Prominent space in his weekly column is provided to give us a quote by some intellectual and an explanation of why the quote is relevant. It is not just my personal observation — other readers too have felt the same. The RE had this to say about the concern — “They felt that it was a digression. It was a conscious decision. A free, independent, vibrant media was the product of nearly three centuries of struggle and commitment by countless men and women.
In the few times that this RE has decided to respond to readers concerns at length, he has emphatically taken the side of the newspaper (sample another one here.) It is safe to conclude that the future occupants of the RE office will continue to justify the slant of the newspaper, while the editors might be busy deriding the slant of the readers!
The concept of the RE is a very good one — even today, many factual, grammatical and statistical errors are rectified and published. What is sorely disappointing is the approach of the RE in discussing the slant and ideology of the newspaper. One would expect the RE to view the paper critically, not parrot the ideology of the paper often.

Sonia’s reconstituted GoM makes things worse

The following article has been written for Niti Central. Reproducing it here for reference.
On October 4, Sushil Kumar Shinde told us that the Group of Ministers on Andhra Pradesh birfurcation will submit it’s report in 45 days. On the night of October 8, we get the news that the GoM has been “reconstituted”! The original GoM, according to the Cabinet note, had 10 members in it. Members were supposed to have been chosen according to the Ministries that will get impacted – Home, Finance, Law, Water resources, HRD etc.
The “reconstituted” GoM now has six members in it, plus one Minister who will be a “special invitee”. Let’s take a look at this reconstituted GoM now:
1. The GoM is supposed to study and advise on legal matters. The original GoM had the Law Minister. The reconstituted GoM does NOT have the Law Minister.
2. The GoM is supposed to look into water-sharing. The original GoM had the Water Resources Minister. The reconstituted GoM does NOT.
3. The GoM is supposed to look into power-sharing. The original GoM had the Power Minister. The reconstituted GoM does NOT.
I guess you get the picture – Ministers of HRD, Transport etc have all been asked to stay away from the “reconstituted” GoM. So who are the new members?
1. Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad
2. Oil Minister Veerappa Moily
3. Defence Minister AK Anthony
4. Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh
What, pray will a Health Minister do in a GoM that has to decide on modalities of splitting up of a State? Or the Oil Minister? If the Rural Development minister is a part of the GoM, then why is the Urban Development Minister not?
Ghulam Nabi Azad and Veerappa Moily have been chosen primarily because they have been Congress general secretaries in-charge of Andhra Pradesh! Their Ministries have nothing to do with the modalities of splitting the State. Why is the Congress hell-bent on giving this whole thing a political colour? Why can’t they follow the recommendations of their own Cabinet? Is this the value they accord to the institution of the Cabinet? What does “special invitee” status to Minister in PMO, Narayanaswamy even mean?
It has been the norm that these 10 Ministries will be part of a State reorganisation, but then why is Sonia Gandhi not allowing that to happen? Why this contempt towards Andhra Pradesh? And before you accuse me of over-reacting, please note that her own Ministers and elected representatives are disappointed at the manner in which she is going about splitting up the State.
Meanwhile, the honourable Digvijay Singh released two letters to the media. One by the TDP in which they have explicitly given their support to the formation of Telangana. Another by YSRCP that said it is only the Centre that has the power to decide, and YSRCP respects the sentiments of Telangana. ‘National’ media played up these letters as if it was a brand new revelation by Digvijay.
The fact of the matter is that these letters have been in public domain from a long time. Every single person in Andhra Pradesh knows about the stand that TDP has taken. Chandrababu Naidu himself read the letter out in 2008, when the party decided to support Telangana. Why then is Digvijay resorting to such dramatics? Neither the TDP nor the YSRCP are leading the protests in Seemandhra. They are merely reacting to the outpour of anger.
The constant refrain of Sonia Gandhi’s office-bearers has been that the TDP has declared support to Telangana thereby paving way for a easy decision by the Congress. If the Congress needs TDP’s help with every single decision, they might as well transfer power to the TDP!
The anger amongst the people is because of the manner in which the split is being carried out. This simple truth seems to be missing the intellectuals of the Congress. The State is still reeling under massive power crisis because of strike by electricity employees. Buses have been off roads for 70 days. Seven lakh Government employees and two lakh teachers have been on strike for more than 60 days. Not one step that the Congress has taken since the CWC announcement 72 days back, has inspired any confidence. It is scary to think of the future of Andhra Pradesh.

It's getting dark, it's getting violent...

The following article was written for Niti Central. Reproducing it here for reference.
On October 4, the Home Minister of India Sushil Kumar Shinde told us that the GoM on AP bifurcation will submit it’s detailed report and recommendations within 45 days. It has been three days. There is no word on the members of GoM, when they will be meeting, when they will be visiting AP etc. We have 42 days remaining for the report promised by the Home Minister of India, and we have no clue on something as basic as the members of the GoM.
This is not the first time Shinde is blurting out random deadlines. In December 2012, he promised to give a decision on Telangana in one month. As the deadline was nearing, we were told (by Ghulam Nabi Azad and Shinde) that one month does not mean 30 days, it might also mean two months! Recently, Shinde said that the Cabinet note on Telangana will be ready in 20 days. It took more than 30 days to come up with the note (that turned out be a clumsy one). So should we take this 45-day deadline with a pinch of salt too?
It has been 69 days since the CWC resolution was announced to the world. Sixty-nine days since lakhs of Government employees from various departments went on strike. To compound the woes of the citizens, the electricity employees in Seemandhra have now joined the strike. With this, thousands of villages have plunged into darkness. Many districts went without power for a whole day yesterday.
The Railways (and thereby the passengers) was also severely affected. Power cuts in hospitals across the regions further compounded the problem. The employee unions have been unrelenting so far. Their only demand — keep the State united. If this strike continues, it is being estimated that there will be a problem with the southern grid too. This sad turn of events is depressing to note. Many people are sincerely hoping that the electricity department unions will call off this strike in view of the hardships being faced by just one day of the strike so far.
One of the hotbeds of this agitation has been Vizianagaram district. The primary reason being that this is where the PCC chief, Botsa Satyanarayana comes from. Almost every day, there have been attempts to gherao his house and other properties. With every passing day, the participation in this dharna/gherao also increases. The situation got out of control after the Union Cabinet decided to go ahead with the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. Suddenly, there was an outpour of anger against Botsa for his ineffective leadership. He is being seen as someone who is toeing the line drawn by the high command in Delhi whilst announcing support for a united state in Hyderabad at the same time!
Agitated crowds have resorted to stone-pelting. Police have had to strike back with lathis.
The situation only went from bad to worse. The RAF was called in to rein in the stone-pelters. For the first time in the history of the town, a curfew was imposed and shoot-at-sight orders were issued. The commonfolk of the town got very agitated because of this and came out on the streets to vent their anger agains Botsa. Colleges owned by him were vandalised too. Some of his properties were set on fire. The police went on an overdrive and started forcibly closing shops and vegetable markets. Central police forces randomly beat up women and youth. These acts further fuelled the situation. Visuals of Central police beating up a young man and the local police stopping them from doing so were very telling.
Botsa has alleged that this is a conspiracy by leaders not of his caste! He has indirectly blamed the Chief Minister of the State for these attacks on his properties. It is depressing to note that the PCC chief and the CM are not even on the same page when the State is engulfed in such a severe crisis. The infighting in the Congress is nothing new for the people of the state, but in times of such extreme crisis, it is frustrating to watch them still trying to make petty gains.
A Congress MLA and brother of the Finance Minister of the State Anam Vivekananda Reddy has castigated Digvijay Singh in the strongest possible terms. He called him a man who destroyed MP and is now out to destroy AP! Meanwhile, the honourable Digvijay Singh has announced that during the 10 years that Hyderabad will take to become the common capital, it will be governed either by the Governor or by the Central Government. The Government does not say anything but the party spokesman goes about announcing decisions that have no value! If Digvijay Singh knows everything, why bother with the GoM?
Our worst fears have started coming true. It’s getting dark, it’s getting violent, and we still have to put up with Digvijay give us sermons.

Most clumsiest Cabinet note on AP!

The following article was written for Niti Central. Reproducing it here for reference.
Where there is a will, there is a way.
An old saying that resonates well for any age. On October 1, the Prime Minister of the country told the media that he will seek to know from Rahul Gandhi why his outburst “had to be done in the manner in which it was done”. There was no inclination of him consenting to the withdrawal of the ordinance. Rahul Gandhi met the PM on the morning of October 2, for 25 minutes. Then the wheels started moving very fast! By the evening of the same day, a special Cabinet meeting was called and within 20 minutes the Ordinance was withdrawn.
Within 24 hours, we were witness to the spectacle of the Prime Minister going out of his way to convene a special Cabinet meet only to withdraw this ordinance. You might argue what’s wrong with that? Here’s my point — there was another Cabinet meet scheduled on October 3! The Prime Minister could not wait for just one more day to withdraw this ordinance – that is the power of having a strong will – in this case, his will was to impress the Gandhi scion!
So why are we talking about will and way? The Union Cabinet met on the October 3 and discussed
five different issues.
Congress has abandoned Andhra Pradesh
One of them was ‘Creation of a new State of Telangana’. Maybe because I am from Andhra Pradesh, I feel this way – but shouldn’t there have been a separate Cabinet session where only the bifurcation of the State was discussed? Isn’t it important enough to have an exclusive meet devoted to it?
For 65 days, Andhra Pradesh has been burning; 65 days since CWC resolved to ask the Government to form a separate State of Telangana. As always, the Congress gave very little clarity on the modalities of the bifurcation then. We were told that a Cabinet note will go into great detail on the nitty gritty of the bifurcation.
Because the Central Government was taking forever to come up with the note, we figured this note will be as comprehensive as it can get. Sixty-five days is surely enough time to come up with a detailed note on such an important subject. Let’s take a look at the Press release after the cabinet meet ended. The full text is available here (not that there is too much to read). The summary of the text is as follows:
A Group of Ministers will be set up to go into various issues that will need to be tackled.
Believe it or not, that’s it! That’s what Sushil Kumar Shinde took 65 days to come up with! It took them 65 days to merely cut and paste portions of the CWC resolution and reword them? Because the incompetence of this Government is incredible, I started searching for the full note of the Home Ministry. It is not yet available on their website (or maybe I couldn’t find it). Telugu newspaper Eenadu though, has reproduced key portions of the note. The brief summary is this:
1. Historical perspective
2. Sharing of resources (Doesn’t provide modalities, just mentions what resources will have to be shared. Says that it has to be decided how these resources will be shared. Genius!)
3. Public representatives (Number of seats for MPs, MLA etc)
4. Service rules for employees and officers.
5. Grants from the Centre (doesn’t tell how much the Centre will give. Merely says Centre will decide later. Genius again!)
6. A Group of Ministers to be formed. The GoM to recommend on various modalities, including how Hyderabad will be governed as a common capital, financial resources for new capital, sharing of various resources etc.)
7. Various statistics (split of resources, split of population, split of Assembly seats etc.)
There is not a single new thing that we learnt after 65 days. It took them 65 days to merely assemble already publicly available data. The only point which was decisive in the note is this: “The new State will be named Telangana”. From the past 65 days, lakhs of people have been demanding clarity on various topics. Even the Chief Minister has publicly chided his own High Command and demanded clarity on various topics. After 65 days, the only clarity we get is that a GoM will decide!
There is further confusion on the timeline by when the GoM will submit its recommendations. The note apparently says 90 days. The genius that is Sushil Kumar Shinde apparently said it will be six weeks. Really? Does he really expect us to believe that after taking 65 days to merely consolidate publicly available data, he will now lead the GoM to actually resolve all issues in six weeks? Now we have to wait for 45 to 90 more days to get clarity.
Sushil Kumar Shinde also says that the whole process of State-formation will be complete in six months – which means by April 2014. Elections to the State Assembly are due in May 2014. Under such a surcharged atmosphere, why does the custodian of law & order of the country want to push something so serious so close to election date? Or is that the gameplan? Somehow postpone the formation and then (as they always do) blame the Opposition parties for the delay? Either way, it is absolutely pathetic to note that the planning of such an important subject is being handled in this deplorable manner.
There is no clarity on whether the Cabinet decision last night will be sent to the Assembly. We were earlier told that the Cabinet note is the first step. After the President signs it, the note will be sent to the Assembly. Once the Centre receives the recommendation back, the GoM will work on the Bill. That Bill will again come back to the Assembly. The Cabinet note does not mention any of this now! It merely says a GoM will look into all issues. Is the UPA afraid of sending this to the Assembly? Does it really want to split the State without even consulting the Assembly?
What happened to the famed Anthony committee which was billed as the solution to this problem? The Prime Minister himself told us that the Anthony Committee will look into all issues. Has it even bothered to start writing a report? Why was this charade imposed on the Congress leaders of the state? Why hasn’t the committee not visited the state yet? At one point of time we were told that the Cabinet note will come in only after Anthony committee submits its report! Hell, Sushil Shinde himself told on the afternoon of October 3 that Telangana note will not be discussed in the Cabinet!
There is definitely going to increased widespread anger at this arrogance of UPA. Forty-eight to seventy-two-hour bandh calls have already been given, and there is near total shutdown yet again. The resignations drama has again begun. A few MPs resigned to the party. A Few Ministers are “contemplating” quitting. The Chief Minister apparently has now taken a stand that he will make no more trips to Delhi.
For 65 days, most of the Rayalaseema and Andhra regions have been shut down. Seven lakh Government employees are on strike. Two lakh teachers are on strike. Various other Government unions are on strike. Buses have not been plying for nearly two months. Governance has nearly come to a complete halt — with ministers only discussing this issue day in and day out. Lakhs of people are out on the street daily — protesting in various forms. For the past 65 days, not a single soothing statement from either the Prime Minister or Sonia Gandhi.
From the Cabinet note yesterday, we expected some semblance of clarity; some acknowledgement of the protests erupting in AP; some soothing words; some assurances and above all some leadership. Instead, what do we get? A “detailed” note that details the various details the GoM will have to decide upon!
Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary responses. For example, Why doesn’t Sushil Kumar Shinde find time to visit AP and try to assuage the fear of various people? Why doesn’t the Prime Minister or Sonia Gandhi find it fit to do the same? Why can’t one of them stay put in Andhra Pradesh for a week and try communicating to the people of the State? We have seen how the PM and Sonia Gandhi responded the extraordinary situation of Rahul Gandhi’s outburst. That’s why I remembered the old adage at the beginning of this article.
The clear lack of will is costing the people of the Andhra Pradesh dearly. These are the same people who sent 30 MPs in 2004 and 2009 so that Sonia Gandhi may rule supreme.